White Paper: Quarantine Stations: Controlling Contagion in 19th Century America

Quarantine Stations: Controlling Contagion in 19th Century AmericaInfectious diseases have been a part of the American experience since our beginning. Initially, colonial settlers trusted that the local climate and air protected them from significant outbreaks. However, during the closing decades of the 18th century, outbreaks began to occur more frequently with an epidemic of yellow fever in 1793 taking the lives of nearly 4,000 citizens in Philadelphia. The following year, The Pennsylvania Gazette ran an article that had appeared two days earlier in the Delaware Advertiser about the local arrival in port of what were suspected to be potentially infected goods brought from New Orleans, known to be dealing with an outbreak of yellow fever. In part, that piece read:

“…In consequence of the late unhappy visitation at Philadelphia, ought not every precaution that human wisdom could devise, be adopted, and enforced, to prevent the like calamitous event?

Are not the crew very sickly; and have not two of them died of the Yellow Fever, and been buried, since their arrival to this port?” [The Pennsylvania Gazette, August 6, 1794.]

Five years later, Congress would create the Marine Hospital Service as a means of monitoring the health of primarily sailors, although this would subsequently be broadened to encompass an expanding number of immigrants arriving on merchant vessels. Official presidential references to epidemics began with Andrew Jackson in a Congressional address alluding to a pestilence that was then impacting the economy of the United States, an outbreak of cholera in 1831-1832.  Cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, and other transmissible diseases, not fully understood until the twentieth century, posed a significant and terrifying threat.

Learn more in our new white paper: Quarantine Stations: Controlling Contagion in 19th Century America.

Download White Paper (PDF)

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